This week our in-house bartender, Nate Brown, gets hot under the collar with highly-regarded bars that have two levels of customer service: great for those in the know, lousy for the ordinary punter.
There’s a universal truth in the hospitality world: “We don’t go to the bars which we know best, we go to the bars that know us best.”
There’s little more comforting or uplifting that acting like a character from Cheers and strutting into your favourite bar, being greeted by name by the bartender who already has a hand on your favourite glass for one of your usuals. This is magical. It makes sense to reciprocate and lavish praise on these places that make you feel so special. They deserve it.
However, if this is true, then the inverse is also possible. Walking into a venue and being met with an unwelcoming lack of interest and a feeling that you’re not wanted can be a pretty destructive experience. The bigger chains can try to sidestep this with scripted steps of service and welcomes, although a little repetition exposes the shallow illusion. At times, the generic ‘Is everything alright with your food/drinks?’, can be as fake as TOWIE. An old friend counters this with a big grin and a nod whilst mumbling vile obscenities. It seldom gets a reaction.
We all want to feel special, or more accurately to be first, best or different. To balance the oxymoronic stance of making everyone in the room feel special is the art of the hospitality trade. Only the best can manage it.
Unfortunately, the more hype around a bar, the further wide of the mark they seem. The bar community is a close-knit affair. This can be a great thing, with lots of potential to do a hell of a lot of good. It can also be a bit of a clique.
I’ve been in hip East London cocktail bars, sitting excitedly at the bar and being ignored for 20 minutes whilst the bar team offers high fives and free shots to a brand rep sat next to me. I watch closely. I know the brand rep, I know what’s happening. Their bill appears with no charge, only a smiley face drawn onto a bit of till roll. That’s all fair and well, but I also see the other guests sat three yards away with empty glasses in front of them on a dirty bar top in desperate need of wiping. The most they can hope for is a ‘yes, guys, what do you want?’
This is bad for everyone. The brand ambassadors and industry visit each other’s bars, enjoy a stellar time, leave feeling like a million dollars, and preach the good word of how awesome that new bar is. Potential guests might hear of these recommendations, the ‘have-you-been-to-such-and-such-yet’, hurriedly visit and are told this is what a good bar is even if the experience fails to live up to the hype.
At which point, a peculiar thing happens. Rather than the wave of underwhelming responses lowering expectations, the hype increases. No-one wants to admit that this place they’ve been to isn’t all that. They want to join in, to be a part of it. So the hype continues. New guests hear, arrive, don’t enjoy, at worst they don’t return. In any other town, this would be dangerously short-lived. London’s masses, however, can sustain an of-the-moment bar for months or even years.
As industry professionals, we have a responsibility to be aware of the situation. We know how the system works. Instead of commenting on how our friends made us feel, we should be looking closer at how our friends made others feel. When was the last time you heard a colleague observe how a bartender rocked a stranger’s day? Surely that’s the name of the game? Dare I say that we as an industry can be guilty of being a little self-indulgent from time to time? Lord knows I can.
We could do with moving the goalposts back to where they belong. The quality of a bartender should be determined by how they make the room feel, not just those that they know. The paying guests, should always take precedence. We should look to treat everyone like a superstar, not just those who return the favour.
I guess all guests are equal, just some are more equal than others.
Nate Brown has owned and operated spirit specialist cocktail bars in London for the better part of a decade. He’s a regular speaker on industry panels, a judge for various spirit awards and has been known to harbour an opinion or two.